WATERVILLE, Maine — When Richard and Dolores Greene of Worcester, Mass., gather around the table with their seven adult children, the family can count a lawyer, an international banker, and a teacher at a yeshiva school at the place settings.
They also can count three college presidents.
Perhaps that’s what comes from years of regular, rigorous discussion of the topics of the day that played out over dinner. But according to the Greenes, this presidential trifecta was never planned, never pushed, but always possible in a family that made education an unassailable priority.
“There was a goal of always making something better,” said David Greene, the newly inaugurated president of Colby College, a liberal arts institution in mid-Maine. “That was always very powerful.”
David is the latest in his family to assume the mantle of president. His brother Thomas founded Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2008, and their father, Richard, was president of St. Thomas University in Miami and Goddard College in Vermont.
“I never encouraged them to go into education, and certainly not to be a president,” said Richard Greene, who taught at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Assumption College, and the College of the Holy Cross over a long career.
Instead, the 83-year-old Greene said in a phone interview, he taught his children to be independent, think for themselves, and forge their own paths. The rarity of three college presidents in one family, he said, appears to have been chance as much as anything.
His son David, ensconced in a spacious office overlooking the Colby campus, agreed as he shook his head with a “how did this happen?” shrug. He has helped plan big-picture strategy as an administrator at Smith College, Brown University, and the University of Chicago, but he does not have a ready answer for this question.
A graduate of Doherty Memorial High School in Worcester, the 51-year-old father of three said the goal of leading a college crystallized for him only in the past decade, when he decided that “this was a way I would make a difference in the world.”
And for Thomas, who is also a novelist, the job grew out of his work to create a nonprofit organization to buy and transform the former Vermont College, his alma mater.
“My initial interest was in saving the place. I never intended to be president,” said Thomas Greene, whose fourth and latest novel, “The Headmaster’s Wife,” plumbs anguish and lust at a New England prep school.
Now, the Greene brothers say with matter-of-fact directness that they intend to make their institutions “the best” — not in Vermont, not in Maine, but among every one of their peers.
“He stole that line from me!” David Greene said with a laugh. “If we’re not shooting to be the best, what are we shooting for? To be second-best?”
That drive has roots in consistent parental example and sacrifice, the brothers said, and not only through a bear-hug embrace of hard work. Their father took on various jobs, including one in a grocery store, to supplement his income as a history professor.
It also played out at that dinner table, where the children were required to participate in a roundtable on important subjects — integrating the Boston schools, for example, or the Vietnam War — or dissect questions from history and literature.
“You had to learn how to argue your point and also to listen,” David said.
David recalled one conversation in the 1970s about racial segregation and multiracial families.
“We were asked how we thought about that, and where did we think it was going, and how did we think about it as individuals,” David said. “Issues of social justice were very important in my family.”
Dolores Greene, who taught kindergarten until she was required to resign three months into her first pregnancy, played an important role in what Thomas called the “triage” of managing a big Irish-Catholic family where the first five children arrived in five years.
She drew up rigorous reading lists, established incentives, and ensured that they followed through.
A Marine veteran, Richard also created a battery of chores for them: cleaning out the garage, washing the floor, painting a room. And at inspection time, no matter how impeccable David thought his work had been, his father usually delivered a semi-satisfied verdict: “It’s starting to come along.”
Richard, the first of his family to attend college, was as scrupulous about his children’s education as he was about the dust on the bedroom floor.
A member of the Worcester School Committee, Richard did not hesitate to stride down the school hallways, seeking out the principal and staff if he did not care for the teachers or courses his children were taking.
“We always dreaded that moment, seeing our father in school. We knew he was going to make our lives harder in some way,” David said with a rueful smile.
Their father, however, maintained an unwavering focus on the importance of education, even if his children sometimes cringed at the means to that end.
“Growing up in the Depression, my refuge was libraries and schools,” said Richard, who graduated from the former Worcester State Teachers College, where he met Dolores, a fellow student. “There was no money, and I was very hungry for knowledge and learning.”
Learning became the sacred golden key — “the one thing they can’t take away from you,” David said — that would provide a choice of careers and the confidence to lead. One of his powerfully vivid memories, David said, was, as a young boy, watching his father receive a doctorate in education from Boston University.
“They saw education as the fundamental, life-changing activity,” David said. And they instilled the courage to stand behind opinions that had been carefully considered and vetted, Thomas added.
“Not everyone is going to love you if you’re in a position of leadership,” Thomas said he learned. “Respect is always more important. It’s about doing the right thing.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie